Do we want religious politicians to confess their inner beliefs?
Credit: Carlo Speranza, Getty Images   

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You stand for public office, you face difficult questions. It’s part of the deal. But when politicians like Britain’s Tim Farron or candidates for public appointment like US lawyer Professor Amy Coney Barrett are faced with questions about religious doctrine, one might assume that giving a traditionalist answer would effectively end their career.

Or, in Barrett’s case, stymie her progress before she had even reached public office. Earlier this month, Senator Feinstein expressed concern in a hearing that federal appellate-court nominee Barrett may not be able to uphold Supreme Court precedent relating to Roe vs Wade because ‘the dogma lives loudly within you’.

Certainly, Farron directly attributed his resignation as leader of the UK’s Liberal Democrats to feeling as though he was ‘the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in’. Critics of his explanation have, however, suggested his failure to capture more of the 48% of voters who supported  ‘Remain’ in the EU referendum and therefore delivered a smaller increase in Lib Dem MPs at the 2017 General Election than some of his colleagues had hoped, were also a factor.

It was no secret that Farron was a Christian. While he longer wore an Ichthus (fish) symbol in his lapel – a sign of belief popular with evangelicals, in particular – as he did during his early years in parliament, he spoke passionately at various events about the ways his faith informed his values and politics. But when it came to answering questions about some of his personal beliefs, he struggled. Under sustained questioning, with the same questions being repeated by the same interviewer in a single encounter but also by multiple journalists, it became clear that backing his party’s liberal policy positions on abortion and gay rights was not enough. Interviewers wanted to know his private views, too. ‘Did he, in particular, think homosexuality was a sin?’ The question he was originally asked about his policy on certain issues quickly turned to his religious belief and became a freedom of conscience issue.

Fringe events at this week’s Lib Dem conference will reference the dilemma Farron expressed in his resignation – ‘we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society’. I’m speaking at one of them, which will consider whether there is room for faith in liberalism. Given the current level of Lib Dem representation in the House of Commons, perhaps it’s more salient to consider how voters respond to politicians’ views on these issues.

Journalists and secular politicians seem determined to publicly probe ‘the dogma that lives within’ – to quote US Senator Diane Feinstein – but British voters are more relaxed about private beliefs

What do voters think?

To test public response to some of the underlying questions of freedom of expression, we asked 1,001 adults in Britain which of these statements came closest to their own view:

 

If a politician believes that gay sex is a sin they should be free to express it 64%
If a politician believes that gay sex is a sin they should not be free to express it 32%
Don’t know 4%

 

Despite including the word ‘sin’ – not often used in everyday language, with its punitive implications of condemnation – two thirds of the public supported the freedom of politicians to express their views. Even on an issue which has shifted as far in public acceptance as same-sex relationships and despite 59% of people from religions other than Christianity considering such relationships to be wrong1.

Thought police

We then went on to test a hypothesis which had emerged during the Farron saga: that if you believe something privately, you’re keeping a dirty secret, and only with full disclosure of all thoughts and feelings can you be considered transparent enough to hold office.

Again, we chose the same issue, to test public opinion, and asked the same respondents which of these statements came closest to their own view:

If a politician believes that gay sex is a sin but seeks to keep that view private, they should be allowed to hold office 67%
If a politician believes that gay sex is a sin then whether or not they keep that view private, they should not be allowed to hold office 25%
Don’t know 8%

 

The reason – apart from Farron’s reluctance to answer the question – that this point is important is because Farron’s voting record demonstrates that he consistently voted for the rights and freedoms of people to do things which he personally did not believe were morally virtuous.

Voters appear to be OK with it. Perhaps it really is the voting records of politicians which are most important, after all.

FORMER LEADER OF BRITAIN’S LIBERAL DEMOCRATS, TIM FARRON, CAME UNDER HEAVY QUESTIONING FROM THE MEDIA ABOUT HIS PRIVATE RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AS WELL AS HIS PUBLIC POLICY POSITIONS ON HOMOSEXUALITY AND ABORTION. CREDIT: GARETH FULLER. Credit: PA IMAGES

Interesting takes…

Keep an eye on these commentators’ writing and social media content, as helpful context to some of these debates:

Michael Wear @MichaelRWear

Former faith adviser in the Obama White House, Wear comments knowledgeably and graciously on the tensions between US liberalism and some religious doctrines.

Stonewall @stonewalluk

Having made a huge contribution to workplace inclusion for LGBT people and been at the forefront of major social developments in the UK, Stonewall know more than most about some of these challenges. Director Ruth Hunt is always quick to point out the areas of connection between religion and LGBT equality, calling out commentators who suggest they are completely incompatible.

Theos @theosthinktank

The team at public theology thinktank Theos, and particularly directors Elizabeth Oldfield and Nick Spencer, think about this stuff all the time. Here is Nick’s analysis of Farron’s modus vivendi liberalism, for example

 

FOOTNOTES
  1.  59% of adults in Britain who identify with religions other than Christianity say they consider same-sex relationships to be always, mostly or sometimes wrong